Pursuing prime minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy focus on South Asia, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has started her three-day visit to Bangladesh on Wednesday. This is her first visit abroad as foreign minister and the choice of Bangladesh shows the importance India attaches to its neighbourhood. The visit, which will be essentially exploratory in nature without any major agreements on the agenda, is expected to help overcome several prickly issues of interest to Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina has been seen as sensitive to India’s security concerns. New Delhi must be ready to go the extra mile to deepen its ties with the eastern neighbour.
The latter has already helped India contain insurgency in the north-east. Dhaka has also acted against fanatical Islamists in Bangladesh, including those who sided with Pakistan during the liberation war. It can be said to be on the way to fulfil Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream of a secular country that is friendly towards India, its ally during the independence movement. It goes without saying that better economic links with Bangladesh will help develop India’s underdeveloped north-eastern region and stem militancy there. Some headway may also be made on the Teesta waters treaty and border delineation.
Although there are elements in Bangladesh who would like to sustain the atmosphere of tension between the two countries by exploiting religious sentiments and portraying India as Big Brother, the ordinary people have no time for such mischief-mongers and would like to strengthen the cultural ties fostered by a sense of oneness between the two halves of Bengal. The infiltration of illegal immigrants into West Bengal and Assam is a cause for concern. But, it is an issue related to the earning of livelihood in a relatively poor country which a larger and richer neighbour faces everywhere, whether in the US-Mexican region or in Europe. An economic upturn in Bangladesh as a result of trade with India should alleviate this problem to some extent.